9
Nov
2012
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Tangling With The Junkyard Cock of Plentywood

My own scientific survey of wildlife art featuring pheasants reveals that three of every four paintings or etchings includes an antiquated piece of abandoned farm equipment.  It might be a plow, hay rake or just the wheel from an old wagon, but it is as standard in paintings of pheasants as the whiter than white ring around a rooster’s neck. 

Such standard compositions come from the midwest with its gently rolling hills and corn stubble that may include some patches of snow to suggest to the hunter a perfect fall day.

As a southern Californian, most of my pursuit of wild pheasants has taken place in the bi-national agricultural landscape of an irrigated desert that is about ten miles wide and stretches from its northern edge near the Salton Sea to a point roughly 30 miles south of the international boundary with Mexico.  Although most would describe the pheasant population as very sparse north of the border and remarkably abundant south of it, I discontinued hunting in Mexico about 20 years ago.

Instead of the ethanol corn and soybeans of the midwest, I see laser leveled fields of alfalfa and Sudan grass and arrow-straight drainage ditches rather than meandering creek bottoms.  I see more Border Patrol vehicles than tractors, and Gradall operators removing what little escape cover remains for pheasants once the fields have been harvested and plowed under.  I see broken down furniture, household waste and dead livestock dumped into some of the same ditches I hunt.

The areas I hunt may lack the scenes that inspire artists, but the few wild roosters they may harbor have always been have enough to inspire me as a hunter.

I mention these contrasts because it is the pathetically sick and incurable passion I have for pheasants that led me earlier this month to search for them in Montana and North Dakota.  For two weeks I traded the engineered irrigation and drainage ditches of Imperial Valley for cattail choked creekbeds, shelter belts and long-abandoned prairie homesteads – and I got the best of the deal.

With all of that as prelude, I found plenty of evidence that the prevalence of rusting vehicles, farm equipment and implements surrounded by pheasants were more than artists’ cliches – and were indeed part of the landscape.

After nearly three days and two thousand miles on the road, we were in the boom/bust/boom town of Plentywood, Montana where we traded the Mexican border for the Canadian border, huevos rancheros for biscuits and gravy and 72 degrees with cloudless skies and light breezes for 27 degrees with snow and high winds with gusts to 30 mph or more.

Being considerably smarter than us, the pheasants were hunkered down in such conditions.  With little cover left in the expansive and frozen fields of wheat stubble,  the birds were congregated in the heaviest stuff they could find.  Few places afforded more protection than the historic homesteads settled by the tough men and women who first set plow to earth with all of their hearts, their faith and a government deed to help them make a go of it.

After building their house and raising a barn, one of their first orders of business was to surround themselves with a shelterbelt of trees and shrubs to provide a buffer of protection from the prairie winds and snow so incredibly harsh in testing their resolve as well as their faith.

Some of these original operations still survive, inhabited by the third and fourth generations descended from the families that first tested themselves against the land and elements.  Others appear to be just hanging on, supplementing their farm incomes with tractor work for others or jobs in the reinvigorated Bakken oil deposit.  Some, particularly those who expanded the original holdings, diversified to include beef production or own lands targeted by the oil producers now thrive.

In the end though, for every original homestead that still has the lights on, there are many more that are dark and sit abandoned, littered with the slowly decaying carcasses of old cars, trucks, tractors and the implements they pulled.  Places where dreams died, where the banks called in their notes or the descendants didn’t share the dream or resolve of those who came before them.

Everyone gone and every thing gone silent – except for the pheasants – and it was in such places that we found them most abundant on the coldest and windiest of days. 

On one of the most memorable of those days, we were led to a large plot of land that must have been a cemetery for vehicles and farm equipment that had been declared dead – a few hilltop acres of once useful bodies scavenged for their parts to keep others running.  Now, they were merely the useless and last inhabitants of a junkyard where weeds and grasses grew through and around them, amid broken glass and strands of rusted wire.

Before I emerged from the truck, I knew this was no place for Gus.  His pads were already sore and sporting a wound from hunting on frozen ground and stubble earlier in the day.  The rusting steel, shards of glass and lengths of wire posed an unnecessary threat to a dog that we’d need to find birds for us in the days ahead, and besides, the howling wind compromised his effectiveness in that regard considerably.  Gus could stay in his kennel while we spread out and began working our way through the maize of rusted tombstones.

With Jeff to my left and working along a fenceline in the direction of some bushes, Jorel to my right and moving slowly toward the cemetery’s lone tree, we did our best not to get ahead of each other.   At times I was walking between the larger pieces of equipment and stepping over the smaller ones.  We were about 30 yards apart and periodically looking to check each other’s progress.  Nothing, though Jorel did note to us the presence of a few Hungarian partridge that were under the tree, reacting to our presence and still well ahead of us.

Eyes focused ahead, I stepped around a farm implement that like most, I could not identify.  At that same instant, a cock pheasant determined that I was too close for his comfort and burst into the air low and straight ahead of me.  It could not have been an easier shot – set the feet, let the target get at least 25 yards out, raise the 20 gauge until the bird is blocked out and pull the trigger.  The big bird fell to the shot, landing in the snow at the base of an open garage, its door scavenged for some other purpose.

The rooster raised its head and I briefly questioned whether to fire a second shot, but there is something wrong about stray birdshot hitting a building, even an abandoned one and the roosters head dropped in a manner that seemed conclusive he was done.

I lowered the gun and began striding toward him as Jeff did the same.  To my surprise, the rooster, keeping low, “army crawled” through the open door and into the garage.  I figured I’d find him under the corpse of a tractor just inside the entrance, or between the various automotive parts that at one time probably comprised at least a couple of trucks. 

Arriving first, there was no sign of him.  I laid down my gun and began looking under the debris that began at ankle depth at the front of the garage and rose to waist height in the most distant corner at the back of the garage.  I was looking for a bird nearly three feet long from his beak to the tip of his tail and wearing a coat of brightly colored feathers that was too gaudy and “fabulous” for Lady Gaga or Elton John to wear – and I couldn’t find it.  Not under the car batteries nor between the generators, starters and coil springs.

By now Jeff was joining in the search and noted a feather and drop of blood in the snow where the bird fell.  I found a down feather inside the rear of the garage near a ventilation opening where the screen was missing.  Jeff went around to the outside of the garage opposite of the opening and found the rooster’s tracks.

The junkyard cock had beaten me on his turf amid all of the man made equipment and escaped!

I was frustrated, but had to smile at the irony of it all – admiring his toughness and craftiness and admitting that the junkyard cock had beaten me and my best effort.  It made me think of how pheasants have survived against all odds through much of this country and how most of them are descended from just 28 birds imported from China and transplanted in Oregon’s Williamette Valley in 1881.

I thought of how as they spread, they became homesteaders too, struggling to find ways to survive by making new and unfamiliar lands their home.

Most of all, I admired my junkyard cock’s will to survive – and I hope he does!

 

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